This blog originates on the banks of the Atchafalaya River, in Louisiana. It proposes to share the things that happen on and by the river as the seasons progress. As the river changes from quiet, warm, slow flow to rises of eighteen feet or more, there are changes in the lives of the birds, fish, amphibians and reptiles that use the river. And the mood of the river changes with the seasons. I propose to note and comment on these things.

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Location: Butte La Rose, Louisiana, United States

I transitioned a few years ago from a career as a water-pollution control biologist. I want to do this blog to stay in touch with a world outside my everyday surroundings, whatever they may be. I like open-minded company and the discussion of ideas. Photo by Brad Moon.

Monday, July 16, 2007

The Dead Tree

Across the river there is a dead willow that sticks up over the general tree line. It is a big tree that has succumbed to the hunger pangs or idle curiosity of patrolling beavers. It is common to see this along the river, and it provides an opportunity to see things that normally hide among the foliage of still-living trees. This morning there was a little scene acted out in that dead willow.

A tall dead tree in a forest is like a ridgeline in a western landscape. Your eye is drawn to it because everything stands out on the ridge, and so in the dead tree. A dark spot in the branches is an anomaly. It is a something else where only the form of branches should be. No birder can resist an anomaly in a faraway dead treetop.

This morning such an anomaly appeared in the dead tree across the river. It was a dark blob, suggesting an owl. Up come the binoculars and no, it is a young red-shouldered hawk. It looks big because it has one wing spread out to dry, odd because it looks lopsided like that. Now comes a second hawk and sits near the first one. I would imagine they know each other.

All is quiet. And then a flock of ten blue jays arrives and the quiet disappears for a while. The jays jabber and fuss and annoy the hawks from the safe distance of several feet. This goes on for about five minutes, and the hawks pay no attention. The jays lose interest and one by one they peel off from the dead tree and come across the river toward me. They don’t bunch together, there is a long ragged line of them coming across the river, and they pass over me and continue on into the woods on this side.

A flock of smaller birds takes over the hawk-awareness duties. These seem to be mostly titmice, chickadees and warblers. They dance around the hawks but they are too far away for me to hear the scolding that I’m sure is taking place. After a few minutes, they too disperse, perhaps attention deficit disorder is not specific to humans.

The two hawks sit in the tree alone, preening and drying. Then, from behind them, I see two crows coming low over the trees. I am reminded of airplanes attacking ships by coming in just over the wave tops. There is no sound announcing the crows, they just fly right at the hawks. One of the crows hits his target so hard he nearly knocks the hawk off the branch. There is a moment of wild wing thrashing and the hawk resettles on the branch. The crows take up a position about ten feet away and begin to make noise. Applying human behavior expectations, I wonder why the hawk doesn’t react to the attack more aggressively. This continues – the hawks sitting there and the crows yelling and with each loud call thrusting the head and chest forward, seeming to throw the sound at the hawks.

As if to comply with my understanding of human behavior, one of the hawks dives from his branch toward the offending crows with all the body language that says “Enough!”. But the crow is expecting this, of course, and beats a retreat back through the trees with the hawk chasing but not overtaking it. It is like a game, each has his role.

There is now one hawk in the tree, alone, as when I first noticed it thirty minutes ago. And a few moments later it flies off in the direction of the crow-chase. Whatever else happens, it happens in the secrecy of the foliage.

The dead tree is empty again, reminiscent of the ridgeline between hills.

The river is, and has been, acting oddly for this time of year. There is nothing normal or average (even though we always use those terms) for this river, of course, but having a rise in July is definitely not an expected event. You don’t plan on it, and it catches you by surprise when it happens. We all heard of the floods in north Texas and Oklahoma two weeks ago. Well, like a message delivered by a reliable delivery service, we get the message by way of that same water paying us a visit now. Where the water “should” be about three feet now on the Butte La Rose gauge, it is close to nine feet! I am having to improvise a way to get from the bank to the dock and that is irritating. It should begin falling next week back down to more usual levels. Any spirit reading this should not interpret my words as complaints, really.

Rise and Shine, Jim


Blogger Dragon James said...

As you have described in your observations, bird confrontations always seem to capture attention. The hawk/jay/crow "battle" must have been something to see. I only get to see the squirrel/mockingbird tussle and the occasional inter-special hummingbird divebombs.

July 17, 2007 9:12 PM  

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